Chester Burnett Born June 10, 1910 Died January 10, 1976
I wrote earlier that in my opinion there are 3 bluesmen who stand alone at the top, 3 greats impossible to really rank from that point so they are 1a, 1b, and 1c. For the longest time Burnett was my clear number 1. He was the artist who gave me my real love of blues music and I think he is the most talented of the three greats and maybe just maybe he does deserve to be clearly back ay number 1. Maybe by the time I finish this blog he will be.
Most won’t know him by his name, most will only know him by his artist name, but that name will be almost universally known. Like most blues names the origin is a bit of a mystery. Burnett himself gave different versions on how he became known. One story has it that his grandfather told him stories about the wild wolves in the area and of course threatened him with them, he told Chester about how they howled and that stuck with him. Another story has Jimmy Rogers giving him the moniker and Chester once said when he discovered that he couldn’t yodel that howling seemed to work for him so he became Howlin’ Wolf. Howlin’ Wolf was the greatest blues singer ever, hands down. From his earliest performances it was said about him that shows were so good so raucous that he his voice alone could make the floor shake that he sang with his entire soul and that at a Howlin’ Wolf performance you would be equally thrilled and scared out of your wits by the man. He was large over 6’3” and always weighed around 300 pounds. He has a song where he proclaims he was 300 pounds of joy and another line says he was built for comfort and not for speed. Yet he was a gentle giant, soft spoken but he could be tough. I saw an old clip once from the late 60’s on some documentary or other and there were a group of old bluesmen gathered around and they were talking about their early days. The stories were great but from one man Son House there was clearly some underlying bitterness and it was directed at Holwin’ Wolf who just took these jibes and jabs in stride until finally he had enough and he ripped in to Son House who backed down so quickly that you knew Howlin’ Wolf had a reputation. For the rest of the interview Son House didn’t have much to say but Howlin’ Wolf went back to that soft spoken demeanor like nothing had happened. That moment has always stayed with me. You had to be tough to work the old juke joints where Howlin’ Wolf started.
Howlin’ Wolf could also do more than just sing. He was an excellent musician and could play guitar and harmonica. Now some of the reason why he stopped playing guitar is that later his guitarist was Hubert Sumlin who I think is the greatest blues guitarist to ever walk the planet. He grew up however surrounded by blues greats and like Robert Johnson loved Charley Patton one of the early greats, a prolific songwriter and recording artist. Patton was also known for his showmanship and he took an early interest in Howlin’ Wolf teaching him to play the guitar which is pretty amazing in its own right. If you are not sure just how cool that was imagine growing up next to someone like George Harrison and having George love you so much that he gave you personal lessons on how to play the guitar. That’s some guitar instructor. Patton also was known for the way he twirled his guitar played behind his back or over his head and all of these tricks he taught Howlin’ Wolf. Later when Howlin’ Wolf wanted to learn the harmonica Sonny Boy Williamson II taught him how. If you don’t know who Williamson is, well he is also in my top 10 all time bluesmen and might be the greatest harmonica player ever. So Howlin’ Wolf was a master musician because he was taught by greats but he was always known for the voice.
Howlin’ Wolf went on to form two amazing partnerships. When Willie Dixon wrote a song for Muddy Waters that was recorded at Chess Records Howlin Wolf asked Dixon why he had never written a song for him. Dixon was one of the most important figures in Blues music because he owned and operated Chess Records a recording studio for and managed by black men. Dixon was a tremendous song writer and performer in his own right. He went on to write many more than just one song for Howlin’ Wolf. The other important relationship Howlin’ Wolf formed was with his guitarist Hubert Sumlin who again in my opinion is the greatest blues guitarists ever. Sumlin was always understated which seemed to work amazingly with Howlin’ Wolf’s big voice but in many ways he set the standard for the way both rock and roll and blues guitar developed from the 60’s on.
There is a great story which says a lot about Sumlin and even more about Howlin’ Wolf. Before his death with his health failing a group of famous and successful English rockers who had grown up listening to the blues and had done much to bring its popularity to all-time highs in the United States invited Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf to London to record with them. These sessions were mostly driven by Eric Clapton and became known as the London Sessions. Now Clapton had made a mistake in the mid 60’s with a young black guitarist who was in England to start a band and jumpstart his career. He was hanging around and one night he asked Clapton if he could come on stage and play. Clapton being God and all said sure. Jimi Hendrix introduced himself to the world and humbled Eric Clapton by playing Killing Floor a Howlin’ Wolf song that Clapton did not believe could be played live. Yet Howlin’ Wolf always played the song live, he had Sumlin who created the original riff playing guitar for him. Clapton wanted no guitarist to be around him who was better so he set a stipulation on Howlin’ Wolf and Muddy Waters that these rich English rockers could not afford to bring the two bluesmen’s bands over so only Howlin’ Wolf and Muddy Waters could be accommodated. It was total bullshit, Clapton alone could have afforded it. Neither Howlin’ Wolf or Muddy particularly liked this but they did agree. Howlin’ Wolf had serious healthcare issues with his heart and kidneys and both of these men wanted to earn money for their families so they went. During the Howlin’ Wolf sessions they were trying to play one of his standards and failing badly so Howlin’ Wolf kept stopping them, trying to give them instruction on what he was looking for. He was a kind generous soul and he was trying to be nice. It would have been great to have gotten his impressions of the ego driven Clapton but he had a lesson for Clapton. You can tell by the way Clapton speaks during the session that he believes he is the best guitarist there. Howlin’ Wolf had told them how it should sound and then backs away gently by telling them how they should play how it feels to them. This now is one of my criticisms of white people especially Englishmen playing the blues because they don’t know how it should feel because they cannot relate where the song came from. Clapton makes the suggestion that Howlin’ Wolf should show them how to play it. Howlin’ Wolf says he can’t play in a sort of aw shucks man moment but remember who taught him. Howlin’ Wolf had spent years in the 30’s and 40’s playing juke joints and playing guitar with every trick Charley Patton had ever shown him. He didn’t play guitar later because he didn’t need to and could focus on singing. So he picks up a guitar and a slide and plays exactly what these Englishmen couldn’t. It is so sublime and Eric Clapton had nothing to say.
Howlin’ Wolf died shortly after the London Sessions. He went in for kidney surgery and died of complications a few days later. He was survived by his wife who he had married in the early early days and her two daughters who he loved and cared for as his own until the day he died. Howlin’ Wolf had always made money in the business and his wife managed their finances. He always paid his musicians very well and even provided health coverage for them. He was one of the good people to ever walk the earth, giving music to us all. His first two albums Moaning in the Moonlight and his self-titled first album which became known as the Rocking Chair album for its cover are absolute blues masterpieces. Listen and its pretty easy to see why I have him rated as the greatest blues singer of all time and one of the three greatest bluesmen ever.